Surprisingly, institutions of higher learning have existed for more than 2,000 years. In East Asia, these institutions were called academies. In the Muslim world, they were known as madrasas. And in Europe, they called them studia or universitas, from where modern universities take their name.
None were exactly like our modern universities. But they were all centers of higher learning. The student had to study a specialization for years, usually more than seven, and then, he would get a degree.
The earliest schools have not survived to our days, but a few of the medieval ones have.
And not all that have made it have been continuously open. Some, like Oxford and the University of Paris, had to close for a while and then reopened.
But there is a select few that, despite bombings, earthquakes, and invasions, have never closed their doors.
This article is about those resilient schools. These are the 5 oldest continuously-operating universities in the world:
1. University of Al-Karouine. Morocco. 859 AD.
Two sisters founded this famous African university, the oldest in the world.
The sisters grew up loving their new city. So when they were older, they decided to give back to the community by building a mosque with a school.
Fatima used her money to build the school. Meanwhile, her sister Mariam used hers for the mosque and a library. The sisters were grandiose, too. Mariam’s mosque holds 20,000 people nowadays.
They called the complex Al-Karouine, after their birth city. And construction began in 859.
The sisters have set two world records
Both siblings made quite an impact on world culture. Fatima’s school is considered the “oldest continuously operating university in the world” by the UNESCO and the Guinness World Records. And Mariam’s is the oldest library in the world.
The school grows
Since it is an Islamic center, at first, the school only granted degrees in religious subjects and law. But later on, Al-Karouine expanded its curriculum to include grammar, rhetoric, logic, astronomy, chemistry, medicine, history, geography, music, and linguistics.
It became a renowned center for learning. Al-Karouine received students from all over the Muslim world and even a few from Europe.
By the 14th century, this African institution had been expanded twice and had 8,000 students.
In 1947, Al-Karouine formally became part of the educational system of Morocco. And in 1965, it received the official title of university.
In the last decades, to accommodate its students, Al-Karouine opened four more campuses.
2. Al-Azhar University. Egypt. 970 AD.
This resilient learning center has survived quite a bit. That includes an earthquake and a bombardment courtesy of the French army.
Originally, it had only one minaret (Muslim tower usual in mosques), a courtyard, and a place for prayer. Soon, it gained four more minarets and a spacious school. The school taught law and religious interpretation.
A radiant beginning
So the caliph named his complex Al-Azhar, after Fatima’s moniker ‘Al-Zahraa’ (‘The Radiant’).
Some classes were open to women since the beginning, perhaps in Fatima’s honor.
Al-Azhar taught Islamic subjects according to the Shi’ite tradition. But then, a Sunni dynasty seized power in Egypt in the 12th century. The Shiítes and the Sunni are rival sects. So Al-Azhar had to shift its curriculum to now align with the Sunni tradition. Like what happened to Oxford. Oxford mainly taught Catholic theology. But then, King Henry VIII converted England to Protestantism. So Oxford, like Al Azhar, changed all its classes.
A century later, Al-Azhar survived an earthquake.
During the next centuries, it gained international recognition. Thousands of students flocked to Cairo to attend their free classes.
Napoleon invaded Egypt in the 18th century, and the institute became a focus of resistance. So the French troops bombarded it (1798). Nevertheless, Al-Azhar did not close.
Since then, Al-Azhar has undergone a series of reforms.
In the 20th century, this African institute was nationalized. It received the title of university and got more faculties. Also, women’s colleges were added.
Nowadays, it has 330,000 students from almost 100 countries. It has campuses throughout Egypt. Al-Azhar houses the second largest library of the country -600,000 volumes, 42,000 of which have been digitized and shared online. It offers degrees in dozens of disciplines, including engineering, computer science, sociology, medicine, journalism, physics, finance, performing arts, architecture, archaeology, and, of course, theology and Islamic Studies.
3. Yuelu Academy/Hunan University. China. 976 AD.
China has had bureaucracy for a very long time. So more than a thousand years ago, it decided that bureaucrats were to pass an exam. Whoever passed it received a position in government according to his capabilities, regardless of social class.
The four great academies
Becoming a civil servant was a fantastic opportunity for many. And they needed to prepare for the exam. So by the Song dynasty (960-1279), academies had sprung throughout China.
The four best academies were Yuelu, Bailudong, Yingtian, and Songyang. Yuelu, built in the city of Changsha, has remained open without a pause since its birth. While all the other academies have either closed for good or closed temporarily at one time or another.
Yuelu’s early campus
Yuelu was founded in 976 AD under Emperor Taizu.
Its campus covered 226,000 ft2 (21,000 m2). Among its many buildings are the Lecture Hall, the Imperial Book Tower, the Teaching Studio, a series of pavilions and halls, and a Confucian temple.
It also has a library, which received book donations from several emperors. The main Lecture Hall was used for special events. There, the students attended the lectures of the academy’s presidents and visiting teachers. Some famous visitors passed through the Hall, such as Neo-Confucian master Zhu Xi.
These academies mainly taught literature, law, poetry, government, and philosophy. All the subjects were based on the works of Confucius and his followers.
Yuelu’s teachers were selected from accomplished specialists called boshi (doctors). Some of Yuelu’s students published books that became Chinese classics.
From Confucius to engineering
In 1903, Yuelu became a modern university. And by 1926, it was officially called Hunan University.
During most of the 20th century, its focus was on engineering and technology. But now it has diversified and has 26 colleges. And 46,000 students attend Hunan.
The old buildings of the academy stand at the center of the modern campus. And the faculty of History and Philosophy is still called Yuelu College.
4. University of Salamanca. Kingdom of Leon (Spain). 1134.
In the 15th century, the Queen of Spain was considering funding Christopher Columbus’ expedition to the Indies. To fund or not to fund? She needed to know if the idea had any merit. So she asked the opinion of the famous scholars of Salamanca.
Salamanca’s scholars also participated in the Council of Trent and helped draft the first Spanish Constitution.
A royal upgrading
The institution is first mentioned in 1134 when it was a cathedral school. A few decades later (1218), King Alfonso IX recognizes it as a studium generale. That is the medieval name for a prestigious learning institution with several faculties. Studia (plural of studium) were open to the public.
His grandson Alfonso X calls Salamanca a university in 1254. And he establishes six faculties: canon and civil law, medicine, logic, grammar, and music.
The following year, the pope decrees that a graduate from Salamanca can teach anywhere in the Christian world.
A collective of students
Salamanca followed the model of the studium of Bologna (Italy): it mainly taught civil law. That was rare since, at the time, most other higher-institutions were teaching theological studies.
Also, like Bologna, it was run by a collective (“universitas”) of students. Young men that wanted to receive classes got together. So they chose the curriculum and hired the teachers. The students called all the shots. The rector of Salamanca, for example, was a student, advised by a council of eight students.
In surprisingly modern fashion, Salamanca granted bachelor degrees for professionals. After more years of study, it also granted licenciaturas and doctorates for those who wanted to teach.
In not so modern fashion, the university did not have its own buildings. None of the European universities did in those early centuries. The students rented local rooms to use as classrooms, or the Church allowed them to use its rooms or halls.
The first building of the university was commissioned by Bishop Diego Anaya in 1401. And the antipope Pedro de Luna built several others in 1411. Many of them, though, were destroyed during the French invasion of the 19th century.
A beautiful modern university
Nowadays, Salamanca has 30,000 students. They can choose from 574 degrees.
And Times Higher Education named Salamanca’s campus the second most beautiful in Europe.
5. University of Cambridge. Kingdom of England, Angevin Empire. 1209.
A woman was killed in Oxford in 1209. And the townspeople believed a scholar from the local universitas was the culprit. Since they could not find him, they hanged three other scholars. That started a riot.
The conflict ended when the students and teachers left Oxford to restart their university elsewhere. They chose Cambridge as the new site.
The new school in Cambridge, like its European predecessors, was run by an association of students (universitas). The students chose their own curriculum and schedules and loaned or rented rooms to use as classrooms.
Since most of the students were clergymen, classes usually took place in Catholic churches like Great St. Mary and St. Benedict.
Students first studied logic, rhetoric, grammar, and arts. Then, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy.
After seven years, they received a bachelor’s degree, and after further study, a master’s.
Later on, when more faculties opened, they had the possibility to keep studying towards a doctorate in divinity, medicine, or law.
The eventful 16th century
In 1318, Pope John XXII gave Cambridge the title of studium generale. And the institution started coming into its own in the 16th century, a period that was quite eventful.
Back then, England was a Catholic country. And the school had faculties of theology and canon law. But when King Henry VIII cut ties with the Catholic Church, he banned the teaching of canon law at Cambridge (1536). In compensation, he gave the university a building: Trinity College.
His daughter, Elizabeth I, reorganized the institution and had it recognized by Parliament in 1570.
And in 1584, Cambridge University Press was established. It has been publishing ever since, winning the title of oldest functioning press in the world.
Science takes the lead
There were only two universities in England at the time, Oxford and Cambridge. Both taught a heavily religious curriculum. With theology and law now hampered, Oxford lost its footing. It would take it a while to recover. Cambridge, instead, was able to make it through by shifting to science.
Today, Cambridge’s 19,000 students can roam a library that has three million texts or the Fitzwilliam Museum that houses collections of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian antiques.
The institution consistently ranks among the six best universities in the world.
Ez-Zitouna University. Tunis, Tunisia. 737 AD.
Ez-Zitouna was once among the most famous Islamic learning centers in the world.
The complex, which includes a mosque, was built in Tunis in 734. Three years later, the school was up and running teaching Islamic Sciences: literature, philosophy, theology, grammar, mathematics, medicine, and astrology.
People from all over the Muslim world traveled to study there. And like in other Islamic institutions, tuition was free. The poorest students would study during the day and sleep in the mosque at night.
Although it probably is the oldest university still working, it was closed for a while. In 1964, a secularist politician shut down the institution and transferred its classes to the University of Tunis. Ez-Zitouna reopened in 2012, reorganized, and turned into a university ruled by the Ministry of Higher Education of Tunisia. It now has 1,550 students and three faculties: Islamic Studies and Civilization, Islamic law, and Theology.
University of Salerno. Duchy of Benevento (Italy). c. 848 AD.
This medical institute was famous in the 10th century, but the exact date of its foundation is unknown.
It was certainly operating in 848 AD, as there is a document of that date that refers to it as a studium generale. And scholars believe it was founded at least 100 years earlier than that.
By the 11th century, Salerno was receiving students from Europe, Asia, and Africa.
In 1221, its fame was such that emperor Frederick II decreed that only doctors approved by the studium could practice medicine in the Holy Roman Empire.
It mainly taught medicine until the 15th century, when faculties of philosophy and law were added. Napoleon closed it down in 1811, but it was reopened in 1944. It now has 40,000 students and plenty of faculties and degrees to choose from.
University of Bologna. Kingdom of Italy,
Holy Roman Empire. 1088 AD.
It is widely considered the oldest university in Europe and the model for modern universities. It is Bologna that first called itself “universitas” almost 1,000 years ago. And it is Bologna that first won autonomy from both state and church, something unheard of in medieval times.
Bologna’s forte was Roman law. But in the 14th century, it added courses of medicine, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, logic, rhetoric, grammar, and theology; in the 16th, Greek and Hebrew.
For centuries, it was considered one of the four great universities of Europe, along with Paris, Oxford, and Salamanca.
In the 12th century, it had 10,000 students. Copernicus, Petrarch, Dante, King Enzio, Thomas Becket, architect Leon Battista Alberti, and plastic surgeon Gaspare Tagliacozzi studied or taught there, among other brilliant minds that have influenced Western culture.
The forward-thinking institute has had female students since the 12th century. And physicist Laura Bassi, mathematician Maria Agnesi, and philologist Clotilde Tambroni taught at the university in the 1700s.
The three-year pause
In 1217, Bologna’s city council tried to end the institution’s autonomy, so students and teachers left Bologna. Three years later, the council gave in, and the school was re-established. It has been functioning continuously since 1220.
Bologna now teaches a broad range of disciplines to its 84,000 students. It has museums, labs, and libraries. And Times Higher Education named its campus the most beautiful in Europe.